Bernie Sanders and the NSA – A Double-Take on Paul Simon’s “America”

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The use of Paul Simon’s “America” by Bernie Sanders’s campaign has generated considerable commentary, which is why I’m aware of it. I’m hardly an accessible target audience; it’s been a while since I’ve seen an advertisement on television or even heard one on a radio. In point of fact, very little advertising for presidential campaign runs in California except during primary season. Why waste precious dollars in a state that is in its current political make-up a foregone conclusion? If Sanders continues to use this ad at all, however, he should be prepared to be asked about the obvious excision from the song and the policy choices he would have to make if he were elected president.

The song, you’ll remember, is a free verse poem (note that there are no rhymes in it), about two young people doing their own version of Kerouac’s On the Road. The reality is less glamorous than the fantasy: “It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw,” and the fade-out image of cars streaming by the bus on the New Jersey Turnpike suggests that the urban reality of New York City just ahead of them at the Port Authority will be less than comforting. In fact, let us consider what that turnpike image shifts into. The next song on the “Bookends” album is “Save the Life of My Child,” which mocks a New York police officer’s comment on young people: “The kids got no respect for the law today, and blah blah blah.” The two songs, a la Sergeant Pepper’s, flow musically one into the other with not a hemidemisemiquaver of a pause, as if to say, “Hey, Kathy and your young poet friend, this is what awaits you.”

What no one seems to have remarked on, though, is the elimination in the advertisement of the dialogue in the first part of the song. “Laughing on the bus playing games with the faces / She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy. / I said, “Be careful. His bow tie is really a camera.” It’s a playful send-up of the paranoia at that time among the counter-culture of the government’s intrusion into daily life, and how people were even then being monitored and tracked. Simon’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, deadpan humor defuses the genuine fear that many young people felt at the time. The question of police state monitoring cannot be so easily laughed off now. So what is Bernie Sanders planning to do with the National Security Agency? The NSA is looking for America, too, but not in the way that Simon’s song portends.